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EQRx, gearing up for a price war with big pharma, buys two cancer drugs

EQRx, a biotech startup formed to drive down drug prices by developing lower-cost alternatives to branded medicines, has acquired two therapies from G1 Therapeutics and Hansoh Pharmaceutical Group. In one deal, the startup paid G1 $20 million up front — and could add $290 million more — for an experimental breast cancer drug similar to those on the market from Eli Lilly, Novartis and Pfizer. Separately, it bought a clinical-stage lung cancer drug from Hansoh that works the same way as medicines from AstraZeneca and others. Hansoh could get approximately $100 million from EQRx in upfront cash and development and regulatory milestones. It could also receive additional, unspecified payouts and royalties should EQRx start selling the drug.  The two deals mark the first specific details EQRx has divulged about its strategy since it launched in January with $200 million in venture funding. They’re part of a “fast follow” approach the startup will use to get drugs quickly to market and undercut higher-priced rivals.

The coronavirus pandemic has taken some of the steam out of the drug pricing debate, which, until the outbreak, was a top political issue in an election year. Indeed, much of the focus in Washington is getting society through the outbreak and speeding vaccines and therapeutics to market. But the cost of prescription drugs is a problem that isn’t going away, wrote EQRx Chief Operating Officer Melanie Nallicheri and CEO Alexis Borisy in a blog post.

“While we may not agree on how we can tackle many of our macro challenges, one area where consensus does exist is that the price of prescription drugs is too high for too many people,” they wrote.

EQRx formed as a “free market” answer to the drug pricing problem, they wrote. Rather than wait for governments to bring prices down, the startup aims to do force them down with competition. It’s advancing medicines either developed in-house or acquired that work the same way as proven drugs, and are “equally as good or better,” Borisy told BioPharma Dive in an interview. The goal is to bring them to market quickly — at what Borisy said, without being specific, is a “small fraction” of the price of their competitors.

The company has several other drugs in its pipeline and is focused on cancer, inflammatory and rare genetic diseases, given the high costs of those medicines for patients and society, Borisy said. It’s working on small molecules and antibodies, two well-established types of drugs, though Borisy indicated that the company could eventually work on more cutting-edge treatments like gene and cell therapies.

“You’re seeing a snapshot of things, keep that in mind,” he said. “We’ve said we’re assembling this business at scale because we need to, if we’re going to reshape how the whole system works.”

The two deals EQRx announced late Wednesday are the first publicly disclosed examples of that strategy. The G1 Therapeutics drug, lerociclib, is a CDK 4/6 inhibitor, as are the marketed drugs Ibrance, Verzenio and Kisqali, which were approved for advanced breast cancer patients whose tumors have metastasized. The Hansoh drug, almonertinib, is for a small subset of lung cancer patients whose tumors express the protein EGFR and have a mutation to the T790M gene — the target of AstraZeneca’s Tagrisso.

Ibrance came to market in 2015 with a list price — before rebates and discounts to insurers — of nearly $120,000 per patient, per year in the U.S. It is now Pfizer’s top-selling cancer drug, with $5 billion in sales in 2019. Tagrisso has an annual U.S. list price of almost $180,000 and pulled in $3.2 billion last year, a number expected to grow substantially given data presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting in May. Both are sold for far less elsewhere, such as Europe, a disparity that Borisy called “mind-boggling.”

Borisy said the market for CDK4/6 inhibitors is projected to be the second-most lucrative in oncology, only behind the cancer immunotherapy drugs known as checkpoint inhibitors. Next-generation EGFR-targeting drugs are also a “huge market opportunity,” he said.

Lerociclib is in early stage testing, while almonertinib is in a Phase 3 study in China against another AstraZeneca drug, Iressa. Borisy wouldn’t describe EQRx’s clinical development plans for either the G1 or Hansoh drugs, or whether the company plans to test them against their rivals in other head-to-head studies.

The company has said previously it aims to have its first products on the market by 2025, but Borisy now says he “hopes to beat that” timeframe.